REALISM IN DRAMA
Modern art is simply decoration. It may portray moods and emotions, but it does not reflect images of the real world, and so, it does not meet the criterion of authenticity. Likewise, there must be realism in drama, because it is supposed to depict a certain setting of time and place. And so, drama can be confusing or deceptive if careful attention is not given to historical accuracy. Works of art and literature should depict their subject matter as faithfully as possible. As Oliver Cromwell instructed his painter, he wanted his portrait to show him warts and all. And if this realism is offensive to some, they need not patronize the art display, or the drama, or read the book.
Religious drama was a part of ancient Greek culture. It was performed during their festivals, and the great dramatists wrote both to entertain and to inspire. In the Church, from medieval times, the primary purposes were similar: to educate and to inspire. If a picture is worth a thousand words, so is a living picture displayed before a receptive congregation worth millions of words in spiritual communication.
With respect to Bible-based plays, there has been the difficulty of interpreting a Hebrew setting to a European audience. Through lack of association with Jewish people, the Gentile world lost the real significance of many events and ceremonies. Also, the Jews have added many post-biblical innovations to their worship. For example, in the Passover meal, all that remains of the paschal lamb in the modern day “feast” is simply a roasted shank bone. And it should be obvious that one dry bone would not convey the proper form of the communal meal that Jews once enjoyed during biblical times, or further, the symbology of the banquet table of the Messiah.
As to clothing, bright colored dyes and closely woven cloth were too expensive for the common man of Jesus’ day. Garments in a play should, therefore, be of coarse weave and subdued earth tones primarily. White linen garments were also common, especially on festal occasions. Modern Arabs all wear a head cloth, but this was not true of the Jews in Jesus’ day. Men in a play should go with uncovered heads, or maybe just a sweatband, as Paul was said to wear (Acts 19:12). Modern Jews cover their heads when praying, but the custom in Jesus’ day may have been just the opposite (1 Cor. 11:4).
All males must wear beards. This is very important, because beards were indicative of Jewishness, of manhood, of scholarship, and of honor. A man would take an oath on his beard while holding it with his right hand. It has become customary with modern theatrical productions to use clean-shaven male actors in portraying Jewish men in Bible times. Also, Bible illustrators and artists, like Leonardo, have often depicted beardless men as well. This is a serious error. All Jewish males beyond the age of puberty wore beards as a sign of their manhood. Only men were “sons of the covenant,” and the physical signs of this were circumcision and the wearing of a beard. Women were denied these distinctions, thus establishing the fact that Judaism was essentially a man’s religion.
Interaction between Jewish men and women in a play should be minimal. The woman would never look directly at a man who was not her husband. Also, she would never touch him - hence the scandal of the woman who washed the feet of Jesus.
There were women present in many episodes in the Bible where they are never mentioned. When a count was taken it was given as numbers of men, plus women and children. Why is the Bible silent about women? Because oriental women are silent. They were there with the men, but they seldom spoke. They were in the crowds and in the ceremonial observances. They were in the room during the Last Passover meal of Jesus, but they were not mentioned in the Gospel accounts. It is understood that Passover is not a feast just for Jewish males. Jesus had been with His mother at every other Passover in His entire life, so why should she not have been there with Him at His last supper?
A woman never uncovered her hair in public; it would have been as though she were naked. (Some Muslim women still cover their entire bodies.) Prostitutes, called “flute girls,” entertained men at parties. They uncovered their hair and looked straight at the men when they spoke. The woman who anointed the feet of Jesus did two scandalous things. She touched Him and she uncovered her hair. In a dramatic presentation, women should pull their hair back so that not a single strand falls from their headscarves.
Orientals do not touch; in the Near East and the Far East there is an “untouchable” taboo. Among Jews, a barber’s trade was unclean, because he had to touch people. Pharisees hugged the walls in public streets lest they be touched, even by a person’s shadow. (Note how sick people were laid where Peter’s shadow would touch them - in Acts 5:15.) Rabbis of strict Jewish synagogues must not be touched. For any woman other than his wife to touch him is a great scandal. It makes him ceremonially unclean. The reason for this is that a woman may be unclean in her time of impurity. These are all good reasons why the Bible does not mention the women at the Last Passover of Jesus.
Now it should be borne in mind that Jesus made a habit of breaking taboos. He spoke to women in public (e.g., the woman of Samaria at the well). He touched people, even lepers. He did not reprove the woman who touched Him and washed His feet. All of these things should be considered in staging a drama about New Testament times.
To give a Jewish flavor to a production, there should be several spoken phrases in Hebrew, as in prayers and greetings: “Baruch atah Adonai...” and “Shalom aleichem,” for example.
With respect to drama in general, I am committed to artistic realism. For example, I believe that the part of Othello should be performed by a man with dark, semitic features. He is supposed to be a “Moor,” and this term comes from the name of the Romans’ north African province of Mauritania. Inhabitants of that region were not negroid, despite the common term “blackamoor,” which simply refers to swarthy Arabs of the Sahara region. So, the traditional use of a black actor for this part is not technically accurate. Aida, on the other hand, is properly a negress, since she comes from south of Egypt.
I never did care for the old silent films, like “Birth of a Nation,” which used white actors cast as negroes. The obvious blackfaced vaudeville style of makeup was too clumsily applied, and it deceived no one. By the same token, Gilbert and Sullivan plays in which Englishmen were made up as Orientals were ludicrous in the extreme.
Nowadays, the issue of racial discrimination has compromised the principle of authenticity. In recent times there was some debate over whether a Caucasian should be cast in the role of an Asian in the play “Miss Saigon,” and the actors’ union made a decision based upon racial discrimination, when it should have been about dramatic realism and the credibility of the production. I agree that an Oriental actor should be given preference for the role. But if the white actor can be made up to look like an Oriental, and he really speaks and acts like an Oriental, he may be the best man for the part. This was certainly the case when Laurence Olivier played the part of the Mahdi in the movie “Khartoum.” He looked and played the part of the fiery Arabic leader to perfection.
Likewise, the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner’s “Nibelungenlied” miscast the role of the Nordic heroine Sieglinde by giving it to Jessye Norman, a black diva. I greatly respect the talent of the singer, but there was not even any attempt to make her look white by means of makeup and a wig. Someone must have made a decision to forego artistic realism in order to make a statement on racial equality. But all they did, in my estimation, was to ruin an otherwise fine production.
Then there was the employment of the black actor Morgan Freeman in the part of an Italian leading man in “The Taming of the Shrew.” And more recently, there was Denzel Washington cast in the part of Brutus in the play “Julius Cæsar.” I am sure that both Wagner and Shakespeare were turning in their graves.
I am not alone in this call for dramatic realism. The Greek satirist Lucian had this to say about a lack of literary realism. He likened it to “...the same as if an actor of tragedy, who is personally soft and effeminate, should play the part of Achilles, Theseus, or even of Hercules himself, without having either the port or the voice of a hero...”
Mystery writer Dorothy Sayers used the term “sense of period” to denote attention to proper costumes and settings specific to a time in history. She observed, “For period-sense is a thing of very recent origin - it scarcely begins to exist before the closing years of the eighteenth century. We may see this very vividly illustrated in the history of theatrical costume. Right down to Garrick’s time, nobody thought it odd to play Coriolanus or Macbeth in a periwig, and all the classical heroines in panniers and powdered hair, any more than Shakespeare had boggled about making his Roman conspirators pull their hats about their brows, or giving Brutus a pocket in his gown. No doubt everybody knew that the custom worn in past ages was different from their own - they knew, but they did not feel that it mattered. They felt that the play was dealing with human beings in a human situation - not with historical personages conditioned by a historical environment. And this was a reflection of their whole attitude to the writers of the past - they judged them as though they were contemporaries, bringing their opinions to the bar of absolute, rather than of relative, truth.”*
As to music in the theater, it should faithfully reproduce the various types of melody that fit the setting of the story. There should be sufficient “soul” in negro spirituals, a baroque flourish in Bach, an oriental flavor with a minor key in Jewish melodies, and uninhibited vigor in modern jazz/rock.
As to language, there is far too much profanity and vulgarity in theatrical dialogue, but this is not always inappropriate when lowbrow gutter types, street gangs, or mobsters are being portrayed. Also, it gets on my nerves to hear a Yankee actor doing a Southern part without any attempt at getting the lingo right. For example, it is never correct to say “y’all” to a single person. And a dog is always called a “dawg” - never a “dahg.” The same goes for “hog,” “frog,” and “boss.” In Boston a guard must be a “god.” Correct dialects are a vital key to authenticity.
As to nudity, it would be ridiculous to cover up the native Americans in a movie about Columbus, or the Hawaiians in a drama from the days of Captain Cook. This would be to repeat the folly of bowdlerism and the desecration of Michelangelo by painting of aprons on his undraped figures. Dramatic realism in this regard will be complete when even Adam and Eve may someday appear in movies unashamed, as God made them.
Richard L. Atkins
*The Whimsical Christian by Dorothy Sayers, Collier Books, 1987, p. 183